Mommy Dearest or Dearest Mom?

The only picture I have of Lizzie Miller, from her headstone.

A story persists in the McDowell oral history about Lizzie Martin McDowell, my paternal great-grandmother. As the story goes, she was a wicked thing, mean and abusive to both her children and her husband John as well as being generally promiscuous, having an affinity for the local male population. [1]

Poor Lizzie. Will no one defend her honor?

As learned when the famous tell-all book Mommie Dearest [2] came out in the late 1970s, behavior–and its inherent goodness or badness–is often in the eyes of the beholder.

Sadly, for Lizzie, the written record available of her life offers little clarity.

Lizzie, the youngest daughter of John and Fannie (Toney) Miller, married John McDowell, 11 years her senior, on 29 December 1904 in Burrell, Iowa, the town Lizzie had lived in all her life. She was 18 years old.

Five years later, she and John appear in the 1910 Census, along with their two children, Harold (my grandfather) and Roy, ages 4 and 2 respectively, and Lizzie’s nephew (her older sister Julia’s son) Leo Bird, age 20. In the next fifteen years, she and John would have six more children.

But, true to the family lore, John and Lizzie divorced in 1923.

The thing I find interesting about this divorce announcement is that Lizzie is divorcing John, not the other way around. A bold, bold move for a woman in the 1920s. Remember, there is still a huge stigma attached to divorced women at this time. And women have very few rights.

You’ll notice that the reason given for the divorce is “cruel and inhuman treatment.” According to 1919 Iowa Law [3], all divorces had:

  • to have a petition with cause, verified by the plaintiff, and its allegations established by competent evidence.
  • to be heard in open court upon the oral testimony of witnesses
  • to list one of the following causes for divorce from a husband:
    • husband has committed adultery
    • husband has deserted the family without reason and has been gone for two years
    • husband has been convicted of a felony
    • husband has become addicted to habitual drunkenness
    • husband is guilty of such inhuman treatment as to endanger the life of his wife
  • to list one of the following causes for divorce from a wife
    • all of the above listed reasons and also
    • if wife at time of marriage was pregnant fy another of which the husband had no knowledge… unless… husband also has an illegitimate child which at the time of marriage was unknown to the wife.

Perhaps because I’m female, I am more sympathetic towards Lizzie? I hope that’s not the case, but I am swayed towards her side of events by three things.

First, Lizzie filed for the divorce and not John. If Lizzie was the promiscuous trollop that John claimed, surely he would have had “established and competent evidence” to procure a divorce from her. So why didn’t he? Two thoughts come to mind: 1) He didn’t have evidence, either because the allegations were untrue or because she was discreet; or 2) the cost of divorcing Lizzie would be too high–you see, Lizzie owned the land that John farmed.

Second in Lizzie’s favor, her divorce petition had to be accompanied with established and competent evidence, meaning she couldn’t just go to court and accuse John of inhuman treatment, she had to back those claims up with some reliable and concrete facts. And, the petition not only had to include “competent evidence” but it had to be heard in open court… with witness testimony. Of course, we all know that witnesses can lie and evidence can be manufactured, if needed. But was this the case?

The divorce petition addresses the “promiscuous” portion of the Family Lore. But what about the “mean and abusive” part?

Perhaps luckily for us all, there are, in most cases, few records that rate our general parenting skills. Today, of course, there are stronger laws protecting children against abuse not to mention the fact that many common parental punishments of the early 20th century are now deemed inappropriate at best and in many cases downright illegal today. So, it is totally plausible that Lizzie Miller McDowell was not the best mother. It is equally plausible that John McDowell was not the best father.

But, in Lizzie’s favor are two census reports [4], 1930 and 1940, showing several of her adult children still living with her. Which begs the question: if she was so terrible a parent, why voluntarily live with her as an adult when you could live elsewhere? Again, there are at least two reasons an adult child would “suffer” an abusive parent: money or the lack thereof, it was the depression after all, or poor self-esteem, a trait often found in abused children. Sadly, Census records only report information deemed important by the government, and parental style was not one of them.

BUT WAIT! Didn’t I say John and Lizzie were divorced in 1923? Then why does the 1925 Iowa Census show them still as a family unit in their records? And how does one explain the birth of their youngest, and eighth, child Dean, born in late 1925 or early 1926? Did Lizzie return to John? Did John ask for another chance? So… Many… Questions…

I’m curious, given what you’ve learned of Lizzie, what do you think? Is she another Mommy Dearest? Or maybe a Dearest Mom? Or does she fall somewhere in-between?

Sources and Notes

  1. As remembered by my father, Lizzie’s grandson, from discussion with his brothers and some vague childhood memories that generally recall Grandpa John as “a nice man.”
  2. Mommie Dearest is a memoir and exposé written by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of actress Joan Crawford. Published in 1978, it described the author’s upbringing by an unbalanced alcoholic mother, whom she judged unfit to raise children. The book attracted much controversy regarding child abuse and child trafficking, with many family friends denouncing it as fiction, but others claiming that it was a broadly accurate, if exaggerated, account of Christina’s troubled childhood.” Wikipedia; 23jan2020;
  3. The Iowa Legislature Archives, 1919 Iowa code, Sections 6622-24,
  4. In both the 1930 and 1940 censuses, Lizzie’s surname is given as Martin [5]. In 1930, the children living with her (Fred (20), Edith, John W, Dorthea, and Dean) all used the Martin name. By 1940, only Lizzie retains the Martin surname while her grown daughters Edith and Dorothy living with her have renounced it. Edith (22) has returned to the name McDowell, and Dorothy (19) shares the name of her husband, Reuben Toney, who is also living with Lizzie.
  5. Lizzie was lost to me, genealogically speaking, until a distant cousin, found from the DNA test my dad submitted to the Ancestry site, yielded a clue. The distant cousin is the granddaughter of Dorothy McDowell Toney and had in her possession the written remembrances of her mother–Dorothy’s daughter, one of which was about Charlie Martin, the man Lizzie allegedly married in 1928. So far, I have not found a marriage license or any other physical evidence of Charlie, save the surname on Lizzie’s 1930 and 1940 censuses, indicating that poor Charlie died before 1930. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Charlie is just a figment of Lizzie’s imagination, dreamed up when she moved to a new town to protect her from the gossip that accompanied divorce in the 1920s. Still, I keep looking for Charlie, thinking he may show up one of these days.

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